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Will Michigan Ever Come Back?

The other day I was reading through some articles on the Big Ten meetings when I came across this article that caught my eye.

(Michigan Athletic Director Dave) Brandon, who replaced Bill Martinas Michigan athletic director in March, spent three days this week immersed in his first Big Ten spring meetings at Chicago’s swanky Sofitel Hotel.

He took part in policy discussions about scheduling and academics. He listened to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s update on expansion (though that wasn’t formally on the agenda). And he studied his peers as they went about their jobs.

"I’m learning," Brandon said. "I still haven’t run into issues that are completely foreign to me, but I respect the position that you have when you’re new. So I come in and I’m in listen mode and ask a lot of questions, and I certainly have opinions, and when I do, I state them.

"But particularly coming to the first meeting, this was more of a selfish act on my part because I get to learn from a lot of people who have been to a lot more of these meetings than I have."

As I read this passage something struck me: My, how the mighty have fallen.

It wasn't that long ago that some Big Ten teams, including Joe Paterno and Penn State,  were pushing to move some games past Thanksgiving to shorten the layoff between the end of the season and the bowl games and to take some of the spotlight off the SEC and Big XII as they held their conference championship games. But Michigan and Ohio State were dead set against it to preserve their rivalry they way they wanted it: the marquee conference game with a noon start on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The Big Ten has always been about the Big Two and the little nine. Not so anymore.

I always pictured these Big Ten meetings with Jim Delany standing up in front of the room talking to the group. All of the coaches and athletic directors from the member schools sit at their table with a bowl full of rock candy and a pitcher of ice water sitting in a puddle caused by the condensation on the side. All of the tables face the front toward Delany, except for two tables oriented behind him on either flank facing the rest of the tables. At those tables sat Michigan and Ohio State. And as Delany spoke to the group, every once in a while the Michigan or Ohio State athletic director would clear their throat a bit after Delany makes a point. Delany would turn around and either get a nod or a shake of the head, and then he would either retract what he just said or repeat it as if the Pope had just blessed it.

But given in the quote above is a different image. It is the image of the Michigan athletic director unsure of himself. Not wanting to speak up. Not wanting to rock the boat. He's not fully aware of his place in the conference. He doesn't see himself as the agenda-setter. Nobody handed him a manual with instructions to follow when he took over for Bill Martin. He's just along for the ride like everyone else.

And what a ride he's on. Is there any program in American that has seen more turmoil than Michigan in recent years? It seems like ever since the loss to Appalachian State the program has spun out in the ditch and can't get out.  Lloyd Carr walked away from it, and though Michigan fans got the guy they wanted in Rich Rodriguez, they were initially rejected by two or three other guys including Les Miles and Greg Schiano. Rodriguez has been surrounded in scandal from the moment he stepped on campus. From the way he ditched his alma mater West Virginia, his shady real estate investments, and most recently the NCAA violations and self-imposed sanctions, Rodriguez has brought one distraction after another. They have suffered two horrible seasons with multiple players defecting, and numerous alumni speaking out against the way the program is being run. When you look at him these days, like in the picture above, he just looks like a broken man, coming to work and collecting his paycheck. Dreading it and wincing every time the phone rings. Wishing everyone would just leave him alone.

I don't envy Dave Brandon these days. If Michigan does not show some progress and go to a bowl game this year, the calls to fire Rodriguez will be too loud to ignore. And given how difficult it was to find a replacement the last time, how many coaches do you think will look at the Michigan job as a dream job? Rodriguez has completely gutted the roster and replaced it with a bunch of tiny guys that can run fast. It may work great in the Big East or the MAC, but that stuff don't fly in the Big Ten as he's finding out.  The next head coach will have to build up that roster from the ground up after RichRod is done with it.

And not to mention the facilities at Michigan. When I traveled out there in 2007 I was quite frankly shocked at how junky Michigan Stadium was. The restroom facilities were pathetic, and I've seen better concession stands at the county fair. They don't even have lights to host night games. Yay for tradition I guess. Though they are making some improvements to the stadium, most of them are just bandaids that are about ten years too late.

Even the Michigan blogs are no fun to read these days. They used to be full of Hail to the Victor bravado, but now they read like empty shells. They must get tired of having to defend Rodriguez from his critics every day. They lash out at the press and former players that speak out against their coach. They call the reporters hacks, and the the players are lazy and couldn't handle the commitment to the program. In a lot of ways I feel bad for them. From covering Penn State basketball I can tell you it's no fun to cover a loser, but they do it anyway. I admire their loyalty. They are the true fans, so I guess I see why they still defend Rodriguez. In many ways drinking the Kool Aid is the only way to keep your sanity.

The Michigan brand is stale. Just thinking of the state of Michigan you think of rusted factories falling apart as people exit to make a better life. It seems as though the Michigan Wolverines haven't been able to escape that, as they too are falling apart one rusted piece at a time. Maybe they can turn things around eventually, but right now it seems like they are heading in the wrong direction with no end in sight.

I hope Michigan does come back. Big Ten football is more fun when Michigan is one of the bullies on the block. But right now I don't see it happening any time soon.